Yesterday afternoon, a helicopter hovered a few blocks away from my building.
I hoped nothing bad had happened. Often, a news outlet or the Police Department will fly a helicopter for non-emergency purposes, and most of us in Downtown San Francisco have learned not to panic.
After the noise continued for awhile, something upsetting turned up on Twitter. SFPD Officer Grace Gatpandan (username @OfficerGrace) warned the public to avoid the area around 8th and Market Streets, due to “police activity”.
8th & Market is a busy area. The Main Public Library and a Holiday Inn are close by, and new construction is underway at the southeast corner of the intersection.
Yesterday afternoon’s crisis was on the sidewalk directly in front of the construction site. A construction worker flagged down a patrol car with two Sergeants on 8th, and reported that a disturbed man was throwing bottles on the Market Street side of the site.
According to early reports, when the Sergeants arrived at the scene and found it necessary to restrain the man, the situation got worse. According to SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, the suspect was able to pull the gun out of one of the Sergeants’ holsters. That Sergeant yelled a brief description of what was happening, and the other Sergeant shot the suspect twice.
The suspect died at the scene, and the peace officers were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.
This tragedy is worthy of an honest investigation, and for the time being we should keep open minds. Everyone who has been affected — the peace officers who tried to restrain the man, the bystanders, family members, the unidentified man who died, and all of us who want to be safe in public places — deserve to have the truth made public.
By late Thursday afternoon, a protest was held. The demonstrators were protesting police brutality and unjustified shootings in general, and suggesting the horror at 8th & Market was similar. I heard a statement from one protester which should alert us to other aspects of the problem, though. He said there’s inadequate training in police departments for dealing with the mentally ill. This is something we’ve heard — on occasion — for a long time. It’s worthy of more media coverage, and we should demand a guarantee that police and sheriff’s departments are working closely with mental health consultants.
There’s another question we must not ignore: How often do the police have options when responding to violent mentally ill people’s actions? If you’ve witnessed the worst of it, it’s hard to offer a strong intellectual argument that the soft touch works best.
There are types of (supposedly) non-lethal force available in some of these situations. It’s difficult to believe that would have worked well yesterday, though. When they arrived, the Sergeants may have believed the form of restraint they used was the softest touch available under those conditions.
In the past couple of years in particular, we’ve heard about many apparently unjustified officer-involved shootings (and at least one fatal choke hold of a man selling untaxed cigarettes) all over the country. Those tragedies should have us worried about bigotry and abuse of power, and personally I find it encouraging when responsible protesters refuse to allow the victims to be forgotten. Although the reactionary elements in the news media want us to believe every police shooting is justified, that extreme view is no different from knee-jerk leftist assumptions about police. In both cases, oversimplifications are just an easy escape from addressing a horrific human problem.
There’s also a problem with media coverage of public reactions. Yes, there’s a violent element in nearly every large protest, and we should never trivialize the way people are harmed by rioting and looting. The decent, sincere (and courageous) people who take part in demonstrations don’t have the answer to that because no one does. Not too long ago, some protesters in Downtown Oakland helped to repair damage to private property the day after other people in the crowd went out of control. Needless to say, some news outlets reported that story, and some didn’t.
Sadly, we’ve learned to expect police departments to protect officers who are in the wrong. It’s human for any of us to be loyal to the people we’ve bonded with. We also know which side our bread is buttered on. The police aren’t the only ones who expect certain behavior from kindred spirits, at the expense of others. Law enforcement is only one organized system which demands unreasonable loyalty, and treats whistleblowing as a crime. Any workplace, family, church or other community might be guilty of the same. It looks corrupt only to outsiders.
Forget the simplistic answers. Some people will say the whole thing that happened yesterday could have been prevented if we just resumed warehousing the mentally ill.
Whoa! Be careful what you wish for. When large numbers of people were confined to locked wards, it included people who shouldn’t have been there. Next time, it could be you. Back in the olden days, all it took was getting on the wrong shit list. That still happens, but on a smaller scale. We might never see the end of wrongful hospitalizations, but the system we have in place now protects many of us.
On the subject of retaliation against post-Serpico police department whistleblowers, try googling the name Adrian Schoolcraft. He went through a nightmare with the N.Y.P.D., but eventually he got partial justice (one civil case is still unresolved). The crimes against him are among the reasons we need safeguards to prevent bad faith hospitalizations.
It’s an uphill battle. The human condition has many different angles, and we won’t find easy answers to anything. Some people hurt us because they’re ill, others hurt us because they’re corrupt, and some people will throw us under the bus because they’re more worried about someone or something else. Then there are those omnipresent people who do bad things because they aren’t very bright. We can demand policy changes and regulation, and that will help a little. However, the obstacles will always be there.